Thursday, January 5, 2012

Episode 1: The Ripper

Episode 1: The Ripper
Original Airdate: 9/13/74
Guest Starring: Beatrice Colen, Ken Lynch
and Mickey Gilbert as The Ripper
Written by Rudolph Borchert
Directed by Allen Baron

Nearly one hundred years after he claimed his first victim in London, Jack the Ripper seems to be back, terrorizing Chicago. Can Carl Kolchak convince the police that this nut thinks he's The Ripper?

JS: Every time I hear the TV theme, which starts off with Kolchak whistling something that would seem more appropriate for the Mary Tyler Moore show, I think, "this is horrible," and then it takes a turn, and I fall in love with it all over again. Sure, it would have been nice for Curtis/Matheson/Cobert to have stuck around for the series, but beggars can't be choosers.

PE: It's a great theme song by Gil Melle. Creepy when it needs to be. Can't say the same for the music played in Werner's Boom-Boom Room. Sounds like a cross between prog-rock and that offensive incidental music found in some of Jamie Gillis' finer films (and for some of us, those two genres sound the same anyway). Yeah, I know it's a strip joint but what chick can shake it to that noise? There's a Larry Buchanan vibe to that goofy piece playing during the Ripper's escape from the massage parlor. Sounds like Zontar radioing earth.

JS: Another thing that stands out in the series premiere is how much more risque the show appears to be than the Movie of the Week entries. None of our prior streetwalkers showed this much skin. Who would have thought that dancers in a TV-show strip club would actually be topless.

PE: Some of the dialogue in this one is pretty schmaltzy. Where Kolchak's descriptive reporter-ese worked on the two tele-films, here (and in the future episodes) there are a few that test the boundaries of dopiness:
"May 24th, 11 PM. 3 days later. Milwaukee again. Debbie Fielder. 22. Five feet, nine. Weight 120. Hobbies: breaking horses and collecting bone china. Debbie wanted to be successful. She should have settled for being alive."
JS: The line might have been funny if it were not followed immediately by the young girl's murder at the hands of The Ripper. A particular shame considering she was a contestant for Miss Physical Therapist!?

PE: Denise Dillaway, who plays Debbie Fielder for all of ten seconds had more exposure in the soft-core porn flick, The Cheerleaders, just one year before she met The Ripper.

JS: So after two movies pitting Kolchak against seemingly immortal adversaries that return every so often to claim young female victims, they chose to start the TV series off with an original tale of a seemingly immortal adversary that returns every so often to claim young female victims. Really? That was the best they could come up with? I guess they were thinking that with more than a year and a half since the last installment, perhaps no one would notice the similarities.

PE: Did I miss the explanation of how Carl and Tony managed to land feet first in three different towns, working together at the same paper each time? And why would Vincenzo want to be with Carl again? I love the dynamic between the two, of course. I'm just questioning the logic (in a show about a 125 year-old murderer).

JS: I found the random coincidence of the second film more troubling, and considering they were in the car together at the end of Strangler, it seems perfectly reasonable to me that they would resign themselves to working together in Chicago (while Jo Ann Pflug must have continued on to New York without them).

PE: The amazing thing about the rooftop chase scene is that the cops didn't shoot each other. There doesn't seem to be any aiming going on here. That scene, by the way, is a direct rip-off of the "blood bank" scuffle in the first film. There's no chance, in the real world, that Carl would be standing around snapping shots while in the line of fire. To make matters worse, the scene is re-enacted later in the same episode! Two unexciting rooftop battles in one show does not an action show make. I'll give the scene points though for the hilarious "bowling with cops" scene when the Ripper tosses a two-by-four at a dozen cops and they go down in a row.

JS: Clearly the Ripper is cut from the same cloth as Stalker's Skorzeny and Strangler's Malcom, considering the way he tosses cops around.

PE: The rooftop chase isn't the only chunk borrowed from the original film. Witness Kolchak's trip into the Ripper's den.

JS: I think everyone involved is willing to stipulate to the fact that this episode borrows liberally from its predecessors.

PE: Simon Oakland just gets better in his Tony Vincenzo skin. His mano a mano verbal duels with McGavin are really what I look forward to in each episode. The two seem so natural together it's too bad they couldn't find another show to launch after this one tanked. When Carl tries to sell Tony a line about Updyke being a "bibliophiliac," you can see the gears turning in the editor's brain. Is Kolchak lying or not? The man can't tell, even after all this time.

JS: Which is part of Kolchak's appeal. Even when spinning an unbelievable yarn, he can still be very convincing. You feel as though he actually believes there's truth in whatever he's peddling.

PE: Despite the fact that he's a fan favorite, I never warmed up to Ron Updyke (Jack Grinnage). A descendent of Frank Burns and ancestor of Niles Crane, Updyke only annoys me with his constant whining, tongue-wagging, and gloating. All that's missing is a purse. William H. Macy would make a perfect Ron Updyke in a big-screen Kolchak.

JS: Yeah, if he keeps up the whiny act, that will become tiresome fast. It does allow for some comic relief, and serves as a reminder that at least Kolchak isn't the buffoon some might make him out to be.

PE: Wildly, Ruth McDevitt pops up as Ms. Eggonwiler (sp?), a nutty old woman who sends a "Dear Emily" letter to the paper about her mysterious neighbor (who turns out to be The Ripper). McDevitt must have made an impact on the powers-that-be as they brought her back later in the season as Miss Emily herself! I guess they were figuring no one would be paying attention but they never bargained for me.

JS: Let alone the IMDB...

PE: Much is made of the fact that Kolchak just happens to meet up with beasties everywhere he turns (22 times to be exact) but what I find more logic-stretching is that he's constantly encountering stonewalling police chiefs. Chicago could use Chief O'Hara.

JS: Had he made it to Gotham City, he'd have been kept busy a lot more than 22 episodes, considering that town's rogue's gallery.

PE: Reporter Jane Plumm (Colen) orders enough food to feed Kirstie Alley and yet she's really not that dumpy, despite Kolchak's assertion to the contrary. I've often wondered, when hiring actors for these types of roles, if the casting director sends out word that the production is looking for someone fat and homely. Colen would find semi-fame as Marsha the roller skating carhop on Happy Days.

JS: It did seem like there was a disconnect between the way the character was written in the script and the actress they hired for the role.

PE: LOL-dialogue:
Vincenzo: Weren't you on your way to the john, Updyke?
JS: You mentioned the strip club music earlier, and yet that has nothing on the electronic noise we're treated to in the Sultan's Palace Massage Parlor.

PE: I'll take the Hot Oil Rub with talcum, hold the vibrator please.

JS: Giving credit where credit's due, the scene of Kolchak's arrest in the massage parlor is a great bit, fitting for the character and giving a brief break in the tension before we're reminded that there is still a killer out there.

PE: "Rudolph Borchert. Line One. It's Robert Bloch's lawyer." Unlike Bloch's vastly superior "Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper" short story (made into the dismal Thriller episode of the same name), there's no explanation for Jack's longevity nor reasoning behind his fear of electrocution while jumping off four-story buildings, soaking up loads of bullets, and taking out prison doors without a touch.

JS: I guess those details are the first to go when you switch from a 74 minute feature to a 52 minute episode of a weekly series. Interestingly enough, in an interview on the Night Strangler DVD, Richard Matheson mentions that he had considered Jack the Ripper for the sequel, and chose not to use it out of respect to his friend Robert Bloch. I like to think that Matheson's take on The Ripper would have been more effective than Borchert's. 

PE: When you take away the dusty plot line, you're left with some snappy comedic bits and sight gags (Tony discovering that Carl's desk is filled with unanswered "Dear Emily" letters). Nothing wrong with that in this case.

JS: I did like how Jack was dispatched (thanks to the Universal pyrotechnics crew), but was disappointed in the way the episode was wrapped up. It seemed to me to be very out of character for Kolchak to toss the article without even turning it in to Vincenzo. I would expect that even a misguided, dedicated reporter would continue to fight to get each of his stories published (unsuccessfully, of course), regardless of how strange or unbelievable they might be. For him to fold without even putting up a fight? That's not the Carl Kolchak Richard Matheson introduced us to. I'm hoping that we'll see a return to normal for Carl in forthcoming episodes.

PE Rating:

JS Rating:

Next up, Kolchak faces The Zombie!


  1. I was disappointed in the opening episode. It was ok but there seemed to be a definite decrease in quality, perhaps because there was 22 minutes less of plot and character development?

    The demotion of Kolchak to the Dear Emily Letter Department reminded me of one of my favorite pulp magazine series. In the 1940's BLACK MASK competitor DIME DETECTIVE ran a series of 16 long novelets by mystery writer Fred Davis. They all were around 15,000 words and starred a newspaper crime reporter by the name of Bill Brent, who was demoted to answering advice to the lovelorn letters under the name of Lorna Lorne. The stories all had a crazy sense of humor and whacky plots with Bill Brent still getting involved in murder cases. All 16 novelets were reprinted in one enormous collection by Battered Silicon Dispatch Box.

  2. Fine work, gentlemen; you've touched nicely on most of the major assets and debits in Carl's weekly debut. I give these guys high marks for having the cojones to kill off Jane Plump. Not that I disliked her; the ecstasy on her face when Kolchak loudly suggests the headline "Cannibalism!" (to which, in an ideal world, the guy sitting behind him in the deli would also have reacted) is priceless. But, like Carl, I recognized that she was--if you'll excuse the expression--asking for it, so it would have been a real cop-out for them to let her live...which, naturlich, is just what I expected from famously craven network TV.

    As for how Matheson would have handled the Ripper, he basically did it in STRANGLER. If you compare that with the THRILLER adaptation of Bloch's story, you'll notice that both invoke the ageless alchemist the Comte de St. Germain, and both involve regularly recurring series of six identical murders, dating back to the 19th century, by killers who retain their youth with their victims’ blood, in the Ripper’s case as sacrifices to "the dark gods."

  3. I want to go on record that I have always loved this episode and that it scared the heck out of me when I saw it first run. I have seen it 3-4 times since and still love it. I hope Mark or Matthew have something to say about the cut from the scene near the end when Kolchak is in The Ripper's house. I seem to recall the TV Guide reviewer pointing it out. There was a cut of a few seconds because it was just too terrifying for TV. The scene was cut for the rerun and I think it's missing in the DVD, but I'm not sure? Guys? Help?

    1. In the original airing, when Kolchak uncovers Jane Plumb's body in the Ripper's house her eyes are open. I believe this was cut from subsequent rebroadcasts during the original run because it was considered too intense. It may or may not have been restored in later reruns. I do think the shot is in the video releases.

  4. The debut of NIGHT STALKER as a weekly series was one of the most anticipated TV events of my young life. I vividly remember the commercial trailers they showed advertising the coming series (it included the "Kolchak's coming back - in style!" clip from NIGHT STALKER as well as the "Let me introduce myself" part from NIGHT STRANGLER. As I was also a huge PLANET OF THE APES fan, it seemed almost overkill that its weekly series debut came earlier the same night!

    Since these were pre-VCR days, I did the next best thing I could do at the time - I put my audio cassette recorder right up against our television set and recorded the audio for each show (and promptly re-listened to them both the next morning - even with my NIGHT STALKER complete series DVD, I wish I still had that old audio cassette...).

    Of course, delighted as I was by my hero Kolchak's return, even this young monster-movie fan couldn't fail to recognize how verrrry similar the Ripper story was to THE NIGHT STRANGLER (which was so similar to THE NIGHT STALKER).

    Little did I realize how much the ensuing show would be a case of RINSE, LATHER, REPEAT!

  5. "There was a cut of a few seconds because it was just too terrifying for TV."

    I'm sure it would help if you could explain what exactly those few "cut" seconds showed.

  6. Hah! I used to record the audio from THE ODD COUPLE and MONTY PYTHON'S FLYING CIRCUS (and, later, THE HOLY GRAIL) myself, accounting for my uncanny retention of large slabs of dialogue down to the slightest inflection. With you all the way on the debut of the series being a HUGE event to this 11-year-old viewer.

  7. OK, the audio cassette recording club is now in session! I also used to borrow my dad's 35MM camera and tripod and set it up in front of the TV set to take "stills" from Twilight Zone episodes. I had a stack of B & W photos that I eventually discarded when Zicree's book came out.

  8. Pleased to welcome another proud member of the ACR Club! Schow still earns bragging rights for being bright enough to wire his tape recorder directly to the TV speakers (as recounted over at WACT:

  9. I may have mentioned this as well, but my college roommate did that with the sound system at the cinema where we worked and recorded all of BLADE RUNNER, so I've listened to that film innumerable times. But Jack must surely get a special prize for his "static kinescopes."

  10. I used a reel-to-reel tape recorder, purchased after months of setting aside quarters earned from a paper route. Big day when there was enough loot to make that purchase. Then switched to cassettes a few years later. Never was sophisticated enough to take pictures from the screen or wire a tape recorder directly to the speakers. Such technological wonders were way beyond me.

  11. Also pre-VCR, when I started (at age 13) making a 3" x 5" index card for every horror/SF film I saw, I would dictate the credits into my tape recorder and transcribe them later on. Some very interesting spellings resulted.

  12. As to the cut shot, I believe it was a shot of the dead girl in the chair in the Ripper's house, and I think it was mentioned by Cleveland Amory in a TV Guide review.

  13. I thought "The Ripper" was the best of the hour KOLCHAKs. Yes, it was imitating the style and content of what came before, but guess what? The entire series, with just a few exceptions, was an ongoing remake of itself, and quite deliberately so. Just as every episode of COLUMBO offers exactly the same plot trajectory with only the culprit and his profession changing, every episode of KOLCHAK strictly adheres to a written-in-stone formula, because it was precisely this formula that struck a chord with audiences. Vary it to any substantial degree, and it simply isn't KOLCHAK anymore. Most of us fans seemed to "get that" instantly, and we marveled at how well-made all these demanded elements were for an hour show (the hand-held photography, night shooting, ultra-violence, etc.). We accepted INS as Mr. K's base of operations because a comedic TV show requires a regular "family" viewers can warm up to (Tony, Ron and ultimately Miss Emily fit the bill nicely). Meanwhile, Gil Melle's music pays homage to Cobert's squeaky notes, but is probably a step up in general (the main KOLCHAK "key tapping" theme, incidentally, was lifted from Melle's score for the QUESTOR TAPES TV movie). As for those notorious ABC edits; these occurred en masse when the show was rerun at 8 pm on Saturdays; what was apparently acceptable at 10 was a no-no for "the family hour." Perhaps not surprisingly, "The Ripper" suffered more than most from these hasty, unceremonious deletions. Not only were attack sequences shortened, but even isolated bits of business -- like the reveal of dead Beatrice Colen, for example -- were removed in their entirety. Colen, for the record, also achieved some low-voltage fame by playing Etta Candy in the WW episodes of WONDER WOMAN on ABC. Finally, the producers thought enough of Kolchak's crumpling of his own story that they decided to repeat this footage every week as an end credits device, suggesting that Kolchak NEVER expects his crazy monster reports to be published, but doggedly does his duty anyway... and this is kinda interesting. The hour show, even as it tries to duplicate every stylistic device from the telefeatures, is more of a fanciful, humorous fable. Kolchak is no longer the real-world reporter who will do anything for a story, but an absurd little everyman who no one understands... yet he knows what he has to do and always winds up doing it. These monsters are genuine threats and MUST be vanquished for everyone's safety, making Carl some kind of unsung, disrespected modern-day knight, rumpled jacket and all. This isn't reality, folks, but a stylized fantasy universe that embraces whimsy and formula plotting. Like Darby O'Gill, colorful, impish, ultimately courageous Carl Kolchak fits right in.

  14. Amen, Gary. One of the endearing things about the character is that Kolchak reacts precisely like we would - the panic on his face as he's in the closet as The Ripper just misses him by inches, until he can't take anymore is priceless, and believeable - but he knows what he's gotta do and he steels up and gets the job done!

    I fully suspect that, at the end of the episode run, some mention will be made of the ill-advised X FILES influenced remake/reboot, NIGHT STINKER? (my name for the show)

  15. Like most TV shows, I feel the NIGHT STALKER is devisable into obvious “phases,” the first of these ending around the fourth episode broadcast, when the title was rejiggered into KOLCHAK: THE NIGHT STALKER, perhaps to lend it some carry-over distinction (or accidental viewership) against two other contemporaneous shows, KOJAK and KODIAK. (Mark DwaidziAK could probably clear me up on this.)

    “The Ripper” and “The Zombie” both have the feel of compressed “Kolchak movies” — the former being a paint-by-numbers reprise of what worked for the TV movies, the second going boldly astray for what is still a strong monster drama, today. These were the first episodes produced, hence, they had the most money to spend. As the series settled into its groove (and doubtlessly had to economize as the schedule dragged on), individual episodes became more obviously confined to whatever the Universal backlot could offer. In TV, all credited producers take their scrape from the entire budget, off the top, then the episodes have to be made with whatever is left, which is why the latter episodes in a season are often threadbare.

    A series doesn’t alter its title by the fourth episode unless it’s already in trouble. It’s the kind of desperation move a TV exec would come up with, thinking him or herself to be “creative” in this regard. The attitude of all ad/pub people is “how can we save this turd?” If it fails, they can say “we told you so,” and if it succeeds, they take the credit for showing uppity writers and producers how it’s done. The Golden Rule in all television is Cover Your Ass. Being right — as Kolchak knows the truth — won’t save you.

    There’s much more to come, but some comment should be tendered on the episodes wherein Kolchak ACTUALLY CONVINCES Vincenzo of the validity of the monster threat-of-the-week (one of them was “Primal Scream”) and they STILL can’t catch a break!

    By end-of-show, the KOLCHAK reboot should also be noted, even though it was wrong-headed. Blame industry trends. Also essential are McGavin’s appearances on THE X-FILES and the show which forms, to my mind, the perfect wrapup for THE NIGHT STALKER — a TALES FROM THE DARKSIDE episode titled “Distant Signals,” which I’ve written about elsewhere and will happily reprise here if needed.

  16. "Kodiak" started the 1974-75 season on the same network and the same night. But Clint Walker's series was canceled after four weeks, helping a bit with the Kolchak-Kojak-Kodiak confusion. Still, the series was in trouble before it premiered, behind the camera and on the air. One reason for the changes was the switch in producers, from Paul Playdon to Cy Chermak. But trouble was everywhere. Darren didn't like the direction the show was taking almost from the start. On air, the series was airing against a murderer's row NBC lineup -- four Friday shows, all of which made the season's top 15. ABC was in the dumper that year. And "Night Stalker" was treated as a bit of a stepchild on the Universal lot. That's why Bob Zemeckis and his writing partner, Bob Gale, targeted the show for their first professional sale as baby writers. They didn't have a chance with the studio's high-end shows, like "Columbo." They intentionally targeted the show in trouble.

  17. DANGEROUS BoB....>ask's...> ""can anyone post a "Comment" on #1.> Who is Mickey Gilbert?..#2.> Why is he Famous??..#3.> What are his sons names(?)and/or Famous for??..and BIG #4..> WHAT FEATURE FILMS did he work on with 'DANGEROUS BoB'?? ..sincerely,...DANGEROUS BoB

  18. It's a tangent, but is it worthwhile to also steal a glance at Curtis' THE NORLISS TAPES as a possible window at what Curtis could've done with the Kolchak character, had he remained involved?

  19. Good point, especially with Curtis regular William F. Nolan--who wrote NORLISS and co-wrote the unfilmed third Kolchak telefilm with Matheson--as another connecting link.

  20. "Did I miss the explanation of how Carl and Tony managed to land feet first in three different towns, working together at the same paper each time? And why would Vincenzo want to be with Carl again?"

    You know, I've always seen it as, deep down, they really consider each other close friends, but they are way too proud/stubborn to ever admit it. The fact that Tony had every chance to ignore Carl in the opening of the Night Strangler movie but didn't do so just speaks volumes. So does Tony apparently having kept a vigil over the hospitalized Carl at the end of The Energy Eater. They're totally bros for life. They just don't realize it.

    "Simon Oakland just gets better in his Tony Vincenzo skin. His mano a mano verbal duels with McGavin are really what I look forward to in each episode."

    Seconding this a thousand times over; it was the dynamic between Carl and Tony (and, by default, Darren and Simon) that remains my favorite part about the series. The way they interact and bounce the lines off of each other is a thing of beauty to see--whether it's the Kolchak-verse or elsewhere (there's an episode of Gunsmoke with the two of them in it. It is grand.)

    Simon and Darren are two amazing, gorgeous actors, and while they're tops in everything I've seen them in so far, they do seem to be at their best when they're together.

    --Crystal Rose

  21. Rose-

    Thanks for the heads-up on the Gunsmoke episode. I have got to see that one. Hope it's on Netflix instant watch.

  22. As a follow-up to Crystal Rose's Gunsmoke catch, I did some research and found that the episode is called "The Hostage" and was episode 12 of season 11 (orig. airdate 12/4/65). Thanks again, Crystal!

  23. The Ripper- #10 out 0f 20, 3 stars.
    I tried to judge this on its own merits- but having just watched Yours Truly Jack the Ripper, and being familiar with the Bloch and Ellison and other effects one's apprectiation, maybe for others it enhances it, but for me its just too similar to those. Still- well written episode, plus the sexy, funny brothel scene. I don't get how Kolchak is sure he can lure the Ripper into the trap before he gets killed, he makes too many fat jokes about the lady reporter who only looked about 10 pounds overweight to me, maybe concepts of obesity have changed, I wish he had some dialog with the Ripper.

  24. I love how Carl can't take the suspense and runs out of the closet before he's caught.
    Check out the score in the chase scene finale- its awful.
    Ron Updyke is very funny, he has more time in this, I wish they let him out of the office more often.

  25. I think there are seven episodes from this TV series that stand out above all others. This debut episode is one of them. Although I'm not certain I'd call this *the* best episode, I tend to agree with Gary Gerani's post above. And I'd add to his post by pointing out that this series was a spin-off from the teleflicks that preceded it, rather than a continuation of them.

    This particular episode was actually a good way to kick off the series. Its familiarity was a way of playing it safe, sort of like easing into the new series. There are several attributes that make this one a grand success to me:

    The story is entertaining. Sure, there are parts left unexplained (this being a frustrating part of many upcoming episodes) and its familiarity may bother some, but it had a neat premise at its core. I'd rank the story itself probably third among Kolchak eps.

    The INS, or office scenes, were quite good, which is crucial. And we get to see Updyke out in the field, which is kinda cool (when viewed in retrospect).

    The scene with Plum in the diner is just classic. I don't think the actress was the least bit fat - and I think the humor was cruel and un-pc - but man, it really was funny. (The punchline comes from Ruth McDevitt minutes later) The tongue was planted firmly in cheek, bear in mind. And as another reviewer pointed out, her (Plum's) reaction to Kolchak's Cannibalism suggestion really was priceless.

    And not only have they spent a little time introducing us to this character, but they have the audacity to kill her off! I wish future episodes were this honest.

    Cool settings: strip club, massage parlor, dark room at the office, the Ripper's lair, etc.

    Very good job of directing by Baron. The pacing was just right, and the suspenseful finale was perfectly executed.

    And that ending really makes the show! It was an extended (perhaps 10 minutes or more?) suspense-filled stretch with dozens of tiny little things done just right. I don't think they ever equaled the suspense (especially in this duration) in any future episode.

    And lastly, this contains my favorite epilogue. The narration was neat and the zoom in on the 19th century piece of footwear was the perfect final shot.

    Was The Ripper perfect? Heck no. The Ripper/Cop fight scene(s) were clunky looking. The lack of explanation about the electricity angle is a bit frustrating - maybe there is no answer as to why - it just is. Regardless, I don't require perfection to give out four typewriters, which is exactly what I give The Ripper.

  26. Like Matthew Bradley, my big audio recording show was Monty Python, the first year I came to know it. And that same year, the one-season sitcom "On The Rocks," which certainly isn't in that revered "Buffalo Bill / Square Pegs" category of "one-season wonders," even though I found it terribly underrated. So I may be the only one on earth who can quote dialogue from THAT show, "down to the slightest inflection."